The Tana Delta in Kenya is a rich interlinked ecosystem of dry land, marshes, fresh and salt water.
It is within the Delta that the Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (Tarda) is planning to convert 40,000 hectares (400 square kilometres) into sugarcane and rice plantations.
The entire Tana Delta measures 130,000 hectares (1,300 square kilometres). But, far from the mainstream towns, the people of Tana are marginalised and open to exploitation. There are few schools and fewer hospitals.
Electricity only reached the area this millennium and even then, towns like Kipini, 21 kilometres off the Garsen-Lamu road, has no tarmacked road leading to it or in it, no electricity or fresh running water.
Trouble has been brewing in the Tana since the 1980s when national and multinational companies were allocated thousands of hectares by the government for prawn farming and for irrigated rice plantations.
More recently, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) has approved projects for plantations of rice, sugar cane, oil crops and biofuel crops — specifically jatropha — and recently, oil and gas exploration.
Bedford Biofuels, a multinational company, leased land for the biofuel crop from group ranches around Garsen and scattered throughout the Delta.
A few kilometres from Garsen on the Garsen-Lamu road is Hewani, a tiny village of mud-walled houses and thatched roofs inhabited by the Pokomo people.
John Baboya is chairman of the Salama Land Case committee fighting to have the community’s ancestral land returned from a national corporation. The retired teacher said, “In 1987, Tarda started a rice project on 10,000 hectares of land.
The officials came here and began telling the Pokomo that they would benefit from the project in terms of employment and development.
The promises turned out to be false — there has been no development such as improved roads, schools or hospitals or meaningful employment. In 1994, we went to court to reclaim our land.
“At that point Tarda did not have a title deed. They were growing rice without any documentation. The court ruled that the project should stop but Tarda continued with the rice scheme and within that period acquired a title deed,” said Mr Baboya.
Eighteen years on, the case has not been settled and an electric fence encompasses the rice area to prevent locals from entering. (The court case will be heard on October 31)
The Tana Delta is the most biodiverse area in Kenya. And yet, despite its rich flora and fauna, the delta is not protected by the government.
The Orma, Pokomo and Wardei keep cattle and grow indigenous varieties of bananas, rice, mangoes, coconuts and maize.
The land they occupy is part of the 40,000 hectares that Tarda has secured a title deed for. The regional authority, in a joint venture with Mumias Sugar Company, plans to grow 20,000 hectares of sugarcane for sugar and fuel.
“This is prime wetland, it’s the heart of the Tana Delta. It covers 32 villages and 25,000 people depend on it,” said Maulidi Diwayu, 50, founder of the Tana Delta Conservation Organisation (Tadeco) and a community extension officer with Nature Kenya. He is spearheading efforts for sustainable development of the delta.
“The environmental impact assessment states that the villagers are squatters and must be moved out. Tarda’s rice fields will be converted into sugarcane plantations. The MP for Garsen wants the sugar project to begin immediately. If it happens, it will rob the people of their economic activity like farming and fishing, and displace them,” says Mr Diwayu.
In 2010, the various communities in the Delta jointly re-filed another land case after the new Constitution came into force.
The community petition is that all development projects in the Tana Delta be stopped until a Development and Conservation Master Plan is agreed and their land rights are taken into consideration.
Editor’s note: Sheya Ali visited the Tana delta just weeks before the clashes in which over 100 people were killed.